By Stan Friedman
MALAKAL, SOUTH SUDAN (December 17, 2013) — Members of the Evangelical Covenant Church of South Sudan (ECCSS) jubilantly welcomed Covenant missionaries John Kerl and Cindy and Pete Ekstrand who traveled here, and were led by missionary James Tang, who is a native of Sudan.
Kerl and his wife, Letha, are succeeding the Ekstrands as Covenant Department of World Mission regional coordinators for the ECCSS. In addition to traveling to South Sudan, the group also met with members of the ECCSS in Ethiopia.
The ECCSS was started in Ethiopia by refugees from the civil war that eventually led to the creation South Sudan. Ethiopia is considered a conference of the ECCSS.
The two-week trip, which was held before the latest outbreak of violence that has so far been contained to the city of Juba, enabled Kerl to travel through the world’s newest country for the first time and gave the Ekstrands an opportunity to say goodbye to old friends as well as lead several community health events.
Villagers honored the visitors throughout their visit with demonstrations of love that included parades and washing the feet of Kerl and the Ekstrands.
“In our U.S. culture we commonly underestimate the importance of presence,” said Pete Ekstrand. “However, presence is very significant in the African culture. To visit someone in their village or their home says that you remembered them, you truly cared.”
In Pagak, Ethiopia, the group met with the widow and family of Reverend Peter, an ECCSS evangelist who was 73 years old when he died September 23. He was one of the founding pastors of the ECCSS.
Ekstrand recalled that a woman in Pagak told the group, “It was very sad when our pastor died. Your visit today shows your love for us. We are one in the body of Christ.”
South Sudan is one of the world’s poorest countries, and churches there have few resources, but the people are resilient and have a deep faith, Kerl said. Most of the churches are made of sticks or grasses, with the pews and even pulpits made of clay.
“The deep commitment of the leaders both in South Sudan and in Ethiopia is what impacted me the most,” said Kerl. “Their engagement in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ in their local community and beyond was inspiring.
The director of the Jordan Bible School in Gambela expressed that passion he has shared, “[While we say that] if you go fish and get fish from one location you always want to return there to fish, but we need to also go to other locations to fish. The students that are here to learn will go out to many locations to teach what they have learned here.”
He added, “This school started as a partnership with the Covenant through Jerry Rice and Alan Holte, and we want to continue working as a partnership with the Covenant.”
Money from the 2013 Friends of World Mission project is funding scholarships for two ECCSS students at the school.
The group began their trip by meeting with the ECCSS leadership at the church headquarters in Malakal and then traveled to five churches around the city. While in Malakal, they also visited Vulnerable and Orphan Children center (VOC), Nile Theological College, and other initiatives of the ECCSS.
The VOC is a four-year-old project in partnership with Covenant World Relief. Through the project women are learning skills such as sewing and cooking that enable them to provide for their families, Pete Ekstrand said.
The denomination that formed in 1998 with more than 100 churches has expanded to 330 churches with more than 19,000 members.
In a country overwhelmed with poverty and natural disasters and still racked with internal tribal conflict, the church has continued to thrive and serve others. “Today every time there is a crisis in the larger area where the ECCSS ministers, the church is going to those in crisis, assessing the needs and seeking the means to come alongside,” Pete Ekstrand said.
Cindy Ekstrand said, “This trip was bittersweet for me. I felt sad to know that I probably won’t see these special people I’ve grown to love this side of heaven. It was encouraging to see growth in individuals both spiritually and vocationally. God is growing these people to be his church in the community.”
The Ekstrands also gave thanks for the assistance they have received from Tang, who provided them with “tireless teaching, explaining, and coaching.”
To see more photos from the trip, click here.
Information for this story was supplied by Pete Ekstrand.